NEW STUDY: Can We Protect the Brain From Cosmic Radiation?

Although this new study is focused space travel and the damage cosmic rays can impose on the human brain, it is important to reflect upon the current trend of a diminishing strength of Earth’s magnetic field allowing a significant increase of cosmic rays.

Another factor is the predicted lessening of solar cycle strengths – perhaps over the next 100 years. When there is a lower number of sunspots, there will be fewer solar storms such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and coronal holes. It is the stronger solar winds which deflect galactic cosmic rays. There is a considerable scientific argument which propose cosmic ray radiation is more harmful to Earth and humans than solar storm events.

As we prepare to enter a new era of space travel, we must find ways of averting health risks posed by the cosmic environment. Deep space radiation, in particular, is known to impair cognitive function. Have researchers found a way to undo that damage?

This is the eve of sending astronauts to explore deep space, colonizing and terraforming other planets, and planning for space tourism. One main threat comes from cosmic radiation, which can harm the central nervous system, altering cognitive function and leading to symptoms similar to those found in Alzheimer’s disease.

With their colonizing missions to Mars planned for as soon as the 2030s, NASA – as well as private companies interested in space travel concepts – have been looking into effective ways of protecting astronauts from the harms of radiation.

So far, researchers have focused mainly on how to enhance spacecrafts and protective outfits for outer space travelers to fend off this strong radiation. Now, however, investigators from the University of California, San Francisco – led by Susanna Rosi – have started developing a treatment that might offset the neuro-degeneration triggered by cosmic rays.

The results of their experiments, which they carried out on mouse models, are now published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Dust Clouds Can Explain Puzzling Features Of Active Galactic Nuclei

Many large galaxies have a bright central region called an active galactic nucleus (AGN), powered by matter spiraling into a supermassive black hole. Gas clouds in an area around the AGN known as the “broad-line region” emit light at characteristic wavelengths, but the complexity and variability of these emissions has been a longstanding puzzle for astrophysicists.

A new analysis by researchers at UC Santa Cruz, published June 14 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, explains these and other puzzling features of active galactic nuclei as the result of small clouds of dust that can partially obscure the innermost regions of AGNs.

“We’ve shown that a lot of mysterious properties of active galactic nuclei can be explained by these small dusty clouds causing changes in what we see,” said first author Martin Gaskell, a research associate in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

The findings have important implications because researchers use the optical emissions from the broad-line region to make inferences about the behavior of the gases in the inner regions around a supermassive black hole.

“The emission from this gas is one of the best sources of information about the mass of a black hole and how it is growing. However, the nature of this gas is poorly understood,” Gaskell said.

Coauthor Peter Harrington, a UCSC graduate student who began work on the project as an undergraduate, explained that gas spiraling toward a galaxy’s central black hole forms a flat accretion disk, and the superheated gas in the accretion disk emits intense thermal radiation. Some of that light is “reprocessed” (absorbed and re-emitted) by hydrogen and other gases swirling above and below the accretion disk in the broad-line region. Above and beyond this is a region of dust.

“Once the dust crosses a certain threshold it is subjected to the strong radiation from the accretion disk,” said Harrington. “This radiation is so intense that it blows the dust away from the disk, resulting in a clumpy outflow of dust clouds starting at the outer edge of the broad-line region.”

The effect of the dust clouds on the light emitted is to make the light coming from behind them look fainter and redder, just as Earth’s atmosphere makes the sun look fainter and redder at sunset. In their paper, Gaskell and Harrington present several lines of observational evidence supporting the existence of such dust clouds in the inner regions of active galactic nuclei. They developed a computer code to model the effects of dust clouds on observations of the broad-line region.

“We’ve written the code so we can adjust parameters like the distribution of gas in the broad-line region, how fast it’s moving, and the orientation of the system, and then we can introduce dust clouds and see how they affect the emission-line profiles,” Harrington said.

The results show that by including dust clouds in their model, it can replicate many features of emission from the broad-line region that have long puzzled astrophysicists. Rather than the gas having a changing, asymmetrical distribution that is hard to explain, the gas is simply in a uniform, symmetric, turbulent disk around the black hole. The apparent asymmetries and changes are due to dust clouds passing in front of the broad-line region and making the regions behind them look fainter and redder.

“We think it is a much more natural explanation of the asymmetries and changes than other more exotic theories, such as binary black holes, that have been invoked to explain them,” Gaskell said. “Our explanation lets us retain the simplicity of the standard AGN model of matter spiraling onto a single black hole.”

Astronomers See Distant Eruption As Black Hole Destroys Star

For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged the formation and expansion of a fast-moving jet of material ejected when the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole ripped apart a star that wandered too close to the cosmic monster.

The scientists tracked the event with radio and infrared telescopes, including the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), in a pair of colliding galaxies called Arp 299, nearly 150 million light-years from Earth. At the core of one of the galaxies, a black hole 20 million times more massive than the Sun shredded a star more than twice the Sun’s mass, setting off a chain of events that revealed important details of the violent encounter.

Only a small number of such stellar deaths, called tidal disruption events, or TDEs, have been detected, although scientists have hypothesized that they may be a more common occurrence. Theorists suggested that material pulled from the doomed star forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light, and also launches jets of material outward from the poles of the disk at nearly the speed of light.

“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” said Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

The first indication came on January 30, 2005, when astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands discovered a bright burst of infrared emission coming from the nucleus of one of the colliding galaxies in Arp 299. On July 17, 2005, the VLBA revealed a new, distinct source of radio emission from the same location.

“As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” said Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared,” he added. The researchers used the Nordic Optical Telescope on the Canary Islands and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope to follow the object’s infrared emission.

Continued observations with the VLBA, the European VLBI Network (EVN), and other radio telescopes, carried out over nearly a decade, showed the source of radio emission expanding in one direction, just as expected for a jet. The measured expansion indicated that the material in the jet moved at an average of one-fourth the speed of light. Fortunately, the radio waves are not absorbed in the core of the galaxy, but find their way through it to reach the Earth.

These observations used multiple radio-telescope antennas, separated by thousands of miles, to gain the resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, required to detect the expansion of an object so distant. The patient, years-long data collection rewarded the scientists with the evidence of a jet.

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, containing millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, at their cores. In a black hole, the mass is so concentrated that its gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. When those supermassive black holes are actively drawing in material from their surroundings, that material forms a rotating disk around the black hole, and superfast jets of particles are launched outward. This is the phenomenon seen in radio galaxies and quasars.

“Much of the time, however, supermassive black holes are not actively devouring anything, so they are in a quiet state,” Perez-Torres explained. “Tidal disruption events can provide us with a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinities of these powerful objects,” he added.

“Because of the dust that absorbed any visible light, this particular tidal disruption event may be just the tip of the iceberg of what until now has been a hidden population,” Mattila said. “By looking for these events with infrared and radio telescopes, we may be able to discover many more, and learn from them,” he said.

Such events may have been more common in the distant Universe, so studying them may help scientists understand the environment in which galaxies developed billions of years ago.

The discovery, the scientists said, came as a surprise. The initial infrared burst was discovered as part of a project that sought to detect supernova explosions in such colliding pairs of galaxies. Arp 299 has seen numerous stellar explosions, and has been dubbed a “supernova factory.” This new object originally was considered to be a supernova explosion. Only in 2011, six years after discovery, the radio-emitting portion began to show an elongation. Subsequent monitoring showed the expansion growing, confirming that what the scientists are seeing is a jet, not a supernova.

Mattila and Perez-Torres led a team of 36 scientists from 26 institutions around the world in the observations of Arp 299. They published their findings in the 14 June online issue of the journal Science.

The Long Baseline Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Volcano Music Could Help Scientists Monitor Eruptions

A volcano in Ecuador with a deep cylindrical crater might be the largest musical instrument on Earth, producing unique sounds scientists could use to monitor its activity.

New infrasound recordings of Cotopaxi volcano in central Ecuador show that after a sequence of eruptions in 2015, the volcano’s crater changed shape. The deep narrow crater forced air to reverberate against the crater walls when the volcano rumbled. This created sound waves like those made by a pipe organ, where pressurized air is forced through metal pipes.

“It’s the largest organ pipe you’ve ever come across,” said Jeff Johnson, a volcanologist at Boise State University in Idaho and lead author of a new study detailing the findings in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. Listen to Cotopaxi’s unique organ pipe sounds here.

The new findings show the geometry of a volcano’s crater has a major impact on the sounds a volcano can produce. Understanding each volcano’s unique “voiceprint” can help scientists better monitor these natural hazards and alert scientists to changes going on inside the volcano that could signal an impending eruption, according to the study authors.

“Understanding how each volcano speaks is vital to understanding what’s going on,” Johnson said. “Once you realize how a volcano sounds, if there are changes to that sound, that leads us to think there are changes going on in the crater, and that causes us to pay attention.”

The ongoing eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii could be a proving ground for studying how changes to a crater’s shape influence the sounds it makes, according to Johnson.

The lava lake at Kilauea’s summit drained as the magma supplying it flowed downward, which should change the tones of the infrasounds emitted by the crater.

Listening to Kilauea’s infrasound could help scientists monitor the magma depth from afar and forecast its potential eruptive hazards, according to David Fee, a volcanologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was not connected to the new study.

When magma levels at Kilauea’s summit drop, the magma can heat groundwater and cause explosive eruptions, which is believed to have happened at Kilauea over the past several weeks. This can change the infrasound emitted by the volcano.

“It’s really important for scientists to know how deep crater is, if the magma level is at the same depth and if it’s interacting with the water table, which can create a significant hazard,” Fee said.

Cotopaxi was dormant for most of the 20th century, but it erupted several times in August of 2015. The eruptions spewed ash and gas into the air, endangering the more than 300,000 people who live near the volcano. A massive eruption could melt Cotopaxi’s immense snowcap, which would trigger massive floods and mudflows that could reach nearby cities and towns.

The 2015 eruptions were relatively minor but triggered an explosion that caused the crater floor to drop out of sight. That was when Ecuadorian researchers monitoring the volcano noticed weird sounds coming from the crater. The frequency of the sound waves was too low for humans to hear, but they were recorded by the scientists’ instruments.

The researchers dubbed the sounds tornillos, the Spanish word for screws, because the sound waves looked like screw threads. They oscillated back and forth for about 90 seconds, getting smaller each time, before fading into the background.

Johnson likens it to the “old Western bar door” that once opened, swings back and forth several times before coming to rest. But because of the crater’s size—it’s more than 100 meters (300 feet) wide and about 300 meters (1,000 feet) deep—it takes five seconds for the sound waves to go through one full oscillation.

“It’s like opening a bar door that goes back and forth for a minute and a half,” Johnson said. “It’s a beautiful signal and amazing that the natural world is able to produce this type of oscillation.”

Pipe organ players create sounds with similar characteristics by using a keyboard to force air through pipes of differing lengths. This is the first time volcanologists have recorded sounds of such low frequency and with this dramatic reverberation coming from a volcano, according to Johnson.

The crater produced tornillo sounds about once a day for the first half of 2016, before they stopped. Johnson and his colleagues are unsure exactly what caused the sounds, but they know it had something to do with the volcano’s activity and not just wind blowing across the top of the crater. Each tornillo was associated with gas coming out of the vent, Johnson said.

The researchers suspect one of two things could have excited the volcano into producing the tornillos. Part of the crater floor could have been collapsing, as can happen when magma moves under a volcano, or an explosion was taking place at the bottom of the crater. Explosions are common in open-vent craters like Cotopaxi, where gas accumulates until it reaches a pressure high enough to explode.

Astronomers See Distant Eruption as Black Hole Destroys Star

For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged the formation and expansion of a fast-moving jet of material ejected when the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole ripped apart a star that wandered too close to the cosmic monster.

The scientists tracked the event with radio and infrared telescopes, including the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), in a pair of colliding galaxies called Arp 299, nearly 150 million light-years from Earth. At the core of one of the galaxies, a black hole 20 million times more massive than the Sun shredded a star more than twice the Sun’s mass, setting off a chain of events that revealed important details of the violent encounter.

Only a small number of such stellar deaths, called tidal disruption events, or TDEs, have been detected, although scientists have hypothesized that they may be a more common occurrence. Theorists suggested that material pulled from the doomed star forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light, and also launches jets of material outward from the poles of the disk at nearly the speed of light.

“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” said Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

The first indication came on January 30, 2005, when astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands discovered a bright burst of infrared emission coming from the nucleus of one of the colliding galaxies in Arp 299. On July 17, 2005, the VLBA revealed a new, distinct source of radio emission from the same location.

“As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” said Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared,” he added. The researchers used the Nordic Optical Telescope on the Canary Islands and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope to follow the object’s infrared emission.

Continued observations with the VLBA, the European VLBI Network (EVN), and other radio telescopes, carried out over nearly a decade, showed the source of radio emission expanding in one direction, just as expected for a jet. The measured expansion indicated that the material in the jet moved at an average of one-fourth the speed of light. Fortunately, the radio waves are not absorbed in the core of the galaxy, but find their way through it to reach the Earth.

These observations used multiple radio-telescope antennas, separated by thousands of miles, to gain the resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, required to detect the expansion of an object so distant. The patient, years-long data collection rewarded the scientists with the evidence of a jet.

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, containing millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, at their cores. In a black hole, the mass is so concentrated that its gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. When those supermassive black holes are actively drawing in material from their surroundings, that material forms a rotating disk around the black hole, and superfast jets of particles are launched outward. This is the phenomenon seen in radio galaxies and quasars.

Such events may have been more common in the distant Universe, so studying them may help scientists understand the environment in which galaxies developed billions of years ago.

Mattila and Perez-Torres led a team of 36 scientists from 26 institutions around the world in the observations of Arp 299. They published their findings in the 14 June online issue of the journal Science. Data from the NSF’s Very Large Array (VLA) and Green Bank Telescope (GBT) were used for some of this work.

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Hawaii Volcano Summit Erupts With Fresh Ashfall

The summit of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupted early on Wednesday and fissures on its eastern slope sent fountains of lava up to 160 feet (50 meter) high, as the volcano showed no signs of calming down after six weeks of intensified activity.

A steam explosion at the summit will likely shower communities near the volcano with ash, the Hawaii Civil Defense Agency said on Wednesday.

“The summit explosion produced an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.4,” the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) wrote in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

The volcano has produced hundreds of moderate earthquakes since it first began erupting on May 3, caused by magma draining from inside the volcano and moving underground.

The magma has been spouting out of fissures from the ground along Kilauea flank, causing mass evacuations from communities. The most active fissure now, called “Fissure 8,” continued to pour into the ocean at Kapoho Bay, producing a hydrochloric acid mist called “laze,” formed when lava enters seawater.

“Gas emissions from the fissure eruption and at the ocean entry continue to be very high,” the Civil Defense Agency said.

The Kilauea eruption, now in its 41st day, has destroyed more than 600 homes, spread lava over 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of land and opened up at least 22 fissures in the ground, according to Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim.

It is the most destructive in the United States since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, which killed at least 57 people.

Hawaii’s eruption, however, has produced slow-moving lava that has destroyed hundreds of structures but allowed people to evacuate, in sharp contrast to Guatemala’s Fuego volcano that ejected fast pyroclastic flows, which buried villages in burning ash and killed at least 109 last week.